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CSUF Researchers Explore Influence of Walt Disney Co.

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Why is the iconic scene of Snow White sleeping in a coffin absent from the ride at Disneyland? How was Walt Disney portrayed by the media during his lifetime? What was it like to be the first female Jungle Cruise skipper?

Underlying Cal State Fullerton’s nationally ranked academic programs is a culture of curiosity that has inspired several faculty members and students to explore questions like these through scholarly research. The Disney-related research, they say, fuels their passions, helps them think critically about one of the world’s leading companies and uniquely positions them for success in their careers.

It’s a Jungle Out There

When David John Marley, a lecturer in history, took his first ride on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise at the age of 7, he knew he wanted to be a skipper one day.

His wish came true when he joined Disney’s cast upon completing his master’s degree in history at Cal State Fullerton, and again after he completed his doctorate in history at George Washington University.

“I liked it because you could tell jokes and be as obnoxious as you wanted to be,” says Marley, who entertained guests in Adventureland for more than three years. “It was the wildest, funnest place to work.”

Combining his passions for history and all things Disney, Marley recently authored “Skipper Stories: True Tales From Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise,” the first oral history of a specific Disneyland attraction. The book features interviews with dozens of skippers from the 1950s to the present, and a second volume is in the works.

“Every skipper I know has stories of working at Disney on holidays, dealing with celebrities and the wild pranks they pull,” says Marley.

Marley, who also spent one summer crafting jokes in the Jungle Cruise writers’ room, is a member of the Hyperion Historical Alliance. The group of scholars works with the Walt Disney Co. to archive its history.

“Walt Disney impacted America more than any other nonpolitician in the 20th century. He changed how we vacation, how we think about art and science, and much more,” says Marley. “I never thought studying Disney was something you could do as academic work. Otherwise, I would have started on it a lot earlier.”

An Artist’s Life

When Sofia Pierantoni was considering which college to attend, Cal State Fullerton’s animation program stood out among the others. Mentored by professors with years of industry experience, she has gained confidence in her animation and illustration skills, as well as in her own ideas.

Her senior project for the University Honors Program analyzed five Disney rides: Alice in Wonderland, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Pinocchio’s Daring Adventure, Peter Pan’s Flight and The Little Mermaid – Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. Comparing scripts of the original animated films with play-by-plays of the theme park attractions, Pierantoni sought to discover how to translate a 60- to 90-minute movie into a three- to six-minute ride.

“The research helped me understand how to tell a story through a ride,” explains Pierantoni, who graduated in May and joined Disney as a cast member. 

Alongside her research, Pierantoni led a CSUF team in the 2016 Disney Imaginations Competition. The team was one of 66 semifinalists among 336 teams across the United States.

She aspires to work for Disney Imagineering. 

Parks and Management

When he’s not on campus, business administration major Thomas Metzger can be found at Disney California Adventure, where he works as an attractions host. Metzger credits the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics with confirming his interest in pursuing a career in theme park operations. In one of his favorite classes, Entertainment Operations, students learn the ins and outs of managing theme parks, hotels and the production of movies, television and music.

“I really enjoyed that class because you gain an understanding of what it’s really like to work in the entertainment and tourism industry,” he says.

Metzger’s senior thesis project for the University Honors Program will focus on “The Effects of Sponsors on Disney Park Attractions.”

“I knew for my honors project that I wanted to study something related to my degree and something I am passionate about,” says Metzger. “Disney is the leader in the entertainment industry, so it’s important to study what they’ve done and what they are continuing to do.”

Inside Out

Andi Stein, professor of communications, created Cal State Fullerton’s first Disney course in 2004: Deconstructing Disney. Offered every other year, the graduate- level class examines the influence of the Walt Disney Co. through group discussions, guest lectures from Disney experts and research projects.

“Every time I teach it, the class fills up,” says Stein, who is working to develop an undergraduate version of the class. 

Stein, who has been studying the Walt Disney Co. for two decades, is the author of “Why We Love Disney: The Power of the Disney Brand.” Her research has taken her to all 12 Disney theme parks and most recently to the grand opening of the Shanghai Disney Resort.

“We’re in the heart of Disney country,” she says. “The studio is not that far away, the park is here, and many people have grown up with Disneyland as their backyard.

“Students at CSUF have the opportunity to dream about working for Disney in ways that other people have not. It’s natural for us to help prepare them for those careers.”